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Tete-a-tete: When it comes to cat toys, sometimes there are strings attached

Things that are fun are not always completely safe, and that’s a difficult lesson to impart to a young’un. A child who’s been given, say, their first smartphone doesn’t necessarily understand why its use is limited or supervised. Young pets who’ve been given new toys understand this concept even less, as Boots has so vigorously demonstrated.

I accept that my family bears the brunt of the responsibility in this matter. We were so accustomed to having an older cat who had seen everything, done everything and just wanted hugs (Cleo was 22 when she passed away), we didn’t really consider the ramifications of introducing Boots, who is now about 3, to the wonderful world of toys.

When Dad brought home a stuffed mouse that dangles from a long elastic attached to a stick, it never occurred to us that she might be encountering such a toy for the first time.

As I’ve mentioned previously, Bootsie showed up in our yard as an older kitten and decided to adopt us. Her past is something of a mystery to us, but her hunting prowess indicates she spent significant time on her own in the woods – an environment that is decidedly lacking in kitty toys.

Boots was entranced by this artificial prey that appeared to move on its own, stalking it from under the bench in the living room and chasing it down until she caught it in her paws, refusing to let it go. Given how her outdoor time was extremely limited this winter, it’s no surprise that she wants to play with Jorge (yes, we named the mouse) all the time.

Unfortunately for Boots, this requires a willing human to manipulate her prey. Jorge and other toys that incorporate strings are kept in a container in the living room for her safety, as even a skilled predator can get tangled up if left unsupervised. Some components of these toys could also be ripped off by overzealous jaws and accidentally swallowed, so she’s not allowed to play with them unless one of us is guiding her playtime.

She will therefore position herself next to the container and stare at anyone who comes within eyeshot, trying to bend them to her will. If that doesn’t work because no one is near the living room, Boots will seek out whichever family member is closest and try to bring them over to her toys.

To give a common example, if I’m in the kitchen emptying the dishwasher, she’ll approach me, meowing, as though she wants me to pet her. When I reach down to do so, she turns and bolts out of the kitchen and into the living room in hopes I’ll follow her and play with her. If she doesn’t get results the first time, she’ll try a few more times before giving up.

Should these subtler attempts fail, Boots will stand in the living room and cry, broadcasting the unfairness of her circumstances to the entire household. If she still doesn’t get a response, she’ll find the nearest family member and personally give them an earful.

It bears mentioning that playing with Bootsie is not an easy task. She expects these toys to move like real prey – speeding around, doubling back, hiding behind the furniture.

I regret to say that I have been deemed subpar in recreational prey manipulation. When I respond to the kitty’s summons and follow her to her toys, she’s excited at first but then immediately loses interest because my movements are too sluggish for her tastes.

I put forth my best efforts, making Jorge dash and dodge and dive, and Boots just sits there, angrily hunched, glaring off into space and refusing to engage. It’s gotten to the point where when she attempts to recruit me for playtime, I remind her of how bitterly I’ve disappointed her in the past and tell her she’d probably prefer not playing at all.

Regrettably, Boots doesn’t seem to have a good long-term memory, and the string of disappointments continues.

Mom is the recreational prey manipulator of choice. She has the energy, stamina and creativity to make Jorge move realistically for several minutes, which is plenty of time for Boots to feel like she’s had a good hunt. Boots doesn’t always agree with that assessment, however, so sometimes Mom has to distract her with another toy in order to release Jorge from her grip.

Aside from Jorge and other toys with strings, Boots has numerous other playthings that can be safely left out for her. Dad has made sure of that. One of her favorites is what can only be described as a mouse patootie. It’s just the lower half of a mouse – tail, rump and hindquarters. I suppose it gives her a certain sense of accomplishment as a hunter.

She also enjoys playing with a bomb-shaped catnip toy that looks like it’s straight out of an old Warner Brothers cartoon and a catnip sack shaped like a wine bottle that Mom picked up at a winery. Mom tends to put these three toys away if Boots isn’t playing with them, as it makes for a rather morally questionable scene on the living room floor.

Despite this spoiling, Bootsie’s favorites continue to be the toys with strings. Unlike a child who will eventually understand their parents’ reasons for limiting or supervising their smartphone use or even a dog who can be taught to obey certain commands in certain situations, she will never quite fathom why we’re so stingy with the toys she loves most.

And yet, when our independent feline curls up in my lap, demanding security and snuggling, I can almost believe she understands that our stinginess comes from a place of love and protection and that these toys are not the be-all end-all of kitty cat existence.

Again, I can almost believe that. Because the moment I try to stand up, Boots bounds off my lap and into the living room, ready for round two.

– Teresa Santoski

Originally published April 5, 2018


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Tete-a-tete: When dealing with cabin fever, this cat’s on a roll

Cabin fever is an essential part of New Hampshire winters, and one of the things that makes spring so welcome. After months of shoveling snow and cleaning off the car, it’s positively invigorating to do something outdoors that doesn’t involve that white fluffy stuff.

This goes double for those furry family members who are accustomed to getting plenty of outside time during the more temperate seasons. When massive snowbanks interfere with their recreation for a prolonged period of time, the resulting frustration can lead to damaged furniture, chewed shoes and knickknacks being knocked off the mantelpiece – unless you (or your pet) get creative.

Pets do not always understand winter, especially young pets. When Boots, our family cat, adopted us about two years ago, the vet estimated she was about 7-10 years old based on the condition of her teeth. And then, Boots started getting longer.

Instead of a senior kitizen, it turned out we had an adolescent on our hands. The bad teeth, we believe, are due to Boots having to hunt in order to survive while she was living outdoors. To this day, when she kills something, she eats everything but the head, tail and entrails. It’s a very economical practice but makes for a lot of wear and tear on the teeth.

Once we realized how young she was, some of Boots’ behavior made more sense – like the fact that she expects snow to disappear overnight.

All winter long, she would insist on going outside, only to hurry back in after discovering the snow hadn’t gone away and was still covering over the holes and burrows of the local wildlife. Her hunting instincts thwarted, Bootsie needed more playtime to burn off her energy. When our busy schedules interfered with that playtime, she would take out her frustrations on the side of the couch.

We keep her well stocked with toys, but they don’t really last long. Anything with catnip in it is gutted in a matter of hours. After a failed period of trial and error during which we attempted to find more durable options, Boots herself unexpectedly hit on a creative solution – or, more accurately, dragged said solution to the ground and destroyed it.

Dad had been doing some cleaning, and he left a roll of paper towels standing on end in the middle of the family room floor. Boots wandered over to it and gave it a long, hard stare. She bopped it with her paw, reflected for a moment and then, to our surprise, launched herself at it as though it were her deadliest foe.

She wrestled with the roll of paper towels for several minutes, tearing through the layers with teeth and claws. Boots and the roll were about the same size, which made for a satisfying battle on her part. Since there are a lot of layers to rip through and it’s not the easiest work to do, that one paper towel roll lasted her about a week, which is far longer than most of her toys.

The carpet did end up covered in piles of paper towel confetti, but that level of cleanup was more than acceptable if it meant we could preserve the couch and keep the kitty happy.

Paper towel rolls helped Bootsie get through the long winter, and now they’re helping her cope with the disappointments of spring. Even though she was surviving on her own outdoors before she adopted us, we do have some ground rules for when she goes outside. First, she can’t go out when it’s dark, and second, she can’t go out unless someone is home to let her back in (and out, and in, and out, and …). This leaves a limited amount of time in which she can go outside and enjoy the lovely spring weather.

To the kitty’s great dismay, an entire beautiful day might pass with her only being able to spend a few minutes outside. It might even rain, which means no outside time at all. (We still offer to let her out when it rains, but she’s not a fan of precipitation.) On days like these, she retreats to the living room and shreds some paper towels.

Being cooped up all winter is rough whether you’re a person or a pet. If the weather is right for outdoor adventures but the timing isn’t, consider taking Boots’ approach. Find something inexpensive and satisfying to take out your frustrations on, and make the most of the outside time you do get.

Please do remember, though, that unlike Boots, you will have to clean up your own mess. So choose your target carefully.

– Teresa Santoski

Originally published May 4, 2017


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